Coming out of my building the other day I was greeted by the words “Coca Cola Concert Series” scrolling across the newly erected electronic marquee at the Beacon Theater. This caused me to think first how quickly Broadway landmarks are changing. Second, how can something as already ultra-popular as Coca Cola need any more publicity? And finally, stepping into a puddle the size of Lake Michigan (one of the many side-effects of the 36-plus inches of snow that have fallen in New York since January), I went directly to fantasising about waterproof boots. But what makes things popular and how do we contribute to this process? These are very important considerations for any true self-respecting media-conscious artist these days.
Planet’s most talented?
I was discussing this the other day with Octavio Vazquez (www.octaviov.com), possibly the most talented living composer on the planet. His latest work is a Violin Concerto which he composed in a record three weeks and which was recently performed in Spain to great acclaim. While Octavio has written for practically every major musical genre, has been widely performed in the United States and abroad, he remains relatively unknown. But he would be the first to challenge any such superlative statements. In truth, it is hard to make a case either way because we don’t have the hindsight of a couple of hundred years to guide us (which I find to be a rather large stumbling block for music critics in general these days).
To art or to eat?
So, instead, let’s look back at our friend Franz Schubert. Born in 1797, Schubert was probably one of the most prolific great composers to ever live, considering how little ‘living’ he actually did. In a mere 31 years he managed to cram in 600 lieder (songs), nine symphonies, a large body of chamber and piano music, and much more. He wrote practically as quickly as the pen could travel on the page. Yet he died in utter poverty and with most of his music never having been performed or published. Why would one of the most talented composers find himself in such a situation? Is not being understood a requirement for posthumous recognition? In the arts, this seems to happen with a certain regularity. Ideally you’d want art to be for art’s sake, but eating, even under the most creative circumstances, always seems like a good idea.
Performing is one way to ensure some degree of public recognition. After all, composing is something done in the privacy of your own home, while just the simple act of sitting down and playing in front of a large group of people is already a form of self-promotion. Rachmaninoff knew this well. That is why after leaving Russia and moving to the United States he dedicated himself solely to playing concerts. His obsessive practice habits resulted in a high-profile piano career, hardly any new music written, and his neighbours getting very little sleep at night.
Vienna or vanilla?
I guess in the end it comes down to time. If you are preparing for a concert you can’t be writing new music and vice versa. I wonder if Schubert would have been a Coke drinker had it been available in Vienna in the early 1800s? Maybe they would have sponsored a few of his Schubertiades. Maybe Octavio needs to write the next Coke commercial? Maybe I should be practicing instead of writing?
Julian Gargiulo is a pianist and composer who divides his time between wishing sabre-toothed tigers weren’t extinct and making paper pirate hats out of his old bios. In between his involvement as fundraiser for and friend of www.diabetes.ky, he also finds time for touring with his new album mostlyjulian, working on his nonprofit 16000children.org, curating the Water Island Music Festival in the US Virgin Islands and Crossing Borders of Hunter College in NY, and endlessly walking the streets of New York in search of people to add as Facebook friends. You can contact him on [email protected]